Andrew Cole had sailed from the Caribbean to Britain with two metric tonnes of drugs aboard the 37-metre luxury yacht Kahu, which had been bought for $1 million for the purpose, when he was caught.
After the boat left Barbados in July of last year it picked up the shipment of drugs from another vessel off Suriname, South America before it continued across the Atlantic.
When the 80 tonne Kahu reached the shipping lane off the Isle of Wight, the plan was to float off the 200 packages of cocaine in cargo nets held up by more than 100 life jackets.
A shore crew from a second vessel would then leave Southampton and pick up both the drugs and Cole after receiving a signal saying, "The willy is free’."
However, before the operation could spring into action the Kahu was stopped in international waters by the customs cutters Searcher and Alert on September 9, 2021 and escorted into Turnchapel Marina in Plymouth, where the drugs were unloaded.
Cole tried to destroy a satellite phone he had been using during the crossing but experts from the National Crime Agency were able to reassemble it.
It included photos taken on board of Cole joking with the crew in the Kahu’s galley and messages telling the gang leader, known as Julio, that he had counted and checked the cargo.
One said he was “Looking forward to getting back to Blighty and making you proud, boss” while another showed a clip of the ocean and “This is a once in a lifetime opportunity”.
Astoundingly Cole even filmed the customs vessels as they prepared to board the Kahu but failed to follow the final instructions from his boss to throw all phones on board into the sea.
The cocaine that was sealed in 2,000 packages to ensure they were waterproof when dropped into the sea, was between 60 and 86pc pure and worth £80 million wholesale or double that in street values.
Cole (33) of Newton Road, Stockton-on-Tees, was jailed for 18 years by Judge Peter Johnson at Exeter Crown Court after admitted arranging the carriage of controlled goods.
Judge Johnson told him the drugs would have caused untold misery to families and communities if they had reached the streets of Britain.
“This was a well organised and sophisticated operation which was thwarted by your interception. This was a massive importation and the profits would have been astronomical.
“The profits are substantial and so are the punishments. In terms of Naval commands, while Julio may have been the Admiral, you were the Commodore. This was a massive operation, one of the largest this court has ever seen.”
David Burgess, defending, said Cole’s messages to his boss showed he was not at the top of the gang and was following instructions throughout.
He had lived a law-abiding life until he ran into problems, started using drugs, and fell in with "the wrong crowd". He has written a letter to the judge expressing his genuine remorse.
The skipper and four other members of the crew were all cleared of drug smuggling at a trial at Plymouth Crown Court in March.
In September 2021, the former owner of the Kahu joked that his family and friends had been sending him messages asking what he had been up to after British police found the huge cocaine haul on the vessel.
Peter White-Robinson, who is originally from New Zealand watched the news unfold at his home in Vancouver.
When police released photos of the seizure he realised the interior of the Kahu had barely change since he sold it in Vancouver in 2013.
“It was a huge part of our lives, that boat,” he said of the 37-metre-long yacht now making headlines around the world.
Wanting to treat his family to the adventure of a lifetime by sailing around the world, he bought the decommissioned New Zealand Navy patrol boat and turned it into family-friendly vessel by boosting its power and range as well as its comfort.
In 2012, the White-Robinson family set off with some friends on their planned two-and-a-half-year journey.
A year after they left Auckland they landed on Vancouver Island.
After arriving, he learned his yacht-building company was facing a financial crisis and he was forced to cut a deal with the buyer of a super yacht he was in the middle of building.
He turned the entire company over to him, including the Kahu.
After the ship was sold, he “didn’t really follow it too much because it just hurt to get too close to it, so I just let things happen”.
But when he saw the photos of the Kahu again, White-Robinson realised the interior looked the same, although the exterior had been painted.
“But this was strange to look at the boat and see her again in such circumstance. I miss her in that way.
“It probably would have been a sensible vessel to use in a way,” he said. “It was a good practical vessel, and it flies under the radar a bit — it was a nice vessel but not a great, big super yacht. I guess they did it because it was reasonably discreet.”